The surge of vampire film and television series has given us everything from sparkly undead dreamboats of Twilight, to sulky vamp-bro love triangles of The Vampire Diaries, and oversexed shenanigans of True Blood. But in Jim Jarmusch's Only Lovers Left Alive, a new breed of the beguiling undead rises. The indie auteur behind such lauded films as Dead Man and Broken Flowers wades into the rich mythos of vampires to pick and choose what appeals to him. His vamps are a sophisticated yet feral breed with an intimidatingly chic yet hodgepodge appearance who—of course—love vintage rock ‘n’ roll. They are glorious. They are infinite. They are monsters, yet deeply and delightfully human.
Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton star as Adam and Eve, a husband and wife vampire duo whose marriage has lasted centuries. Their journeys have introduced them to countless artists and icons, and lead them all around the world. But this isn’t the story of their past; it is one of their world-weary present. At the film's start we find them apart. Adam broods in Detroit, where he has created an off-the-grid nest, surrounding himself with obsolete technology and luxurious instruments that he uses to make exquisite music.
Eve is far away, carefree and contentedly lounging in Tangiers with her longtime friend, Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt). Yes, that Christopher Marlowe. The first of the film’s many flirtations with revisionist history is that Marlowe did not die tragically, but instead became a vampire. Forced into hiding, he ghostwrote for an "illiterate zombie philistine" called William Shakespeare. This nonchalant dose of backstory reflects the irreverent sense of wry humor as well as the post-modern attitude Jarmusch has woven throughout his film, along with a lovely melancholy.
Shakespeare was no literal zombie. This is the derogatory term Adam, Eve and their vampire peers use to refer to the living, scorning mankind for their insufferable ignorance. Having watched our lack of progress over eras, Adam is depressed, considering suicide. Sensing his despair, Eve rushes to reunite with him. At first, all is love, comfort, and deep friendship with the two sharing secrets, a bed, and bittersweet tours of a deteriorated Detroit. But their happy home life is disturbed when Eve's wild child little sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska) arrives with no boundaries and an insatiable thirst.
For a film that deals in death, depression, and desperation, Only Lovers Left Alive is shockingly effervescent and funny. For instance, when Adam lectures the childish Ava, she retorts with a wise-ass remark, “I might have been born at night, but I wasn’t born last night!” While some moments are silly, Jarmusch is careful never to fall into campiness. Instead, Only Lovers Left Alive plays out like a family dramedy wherein the family just happens to be vampires. And the extraordinary cast grounds this whole intoxicating story with relationships that feel relaxed, layered, and well worn in.
Hiddleston and Swinton share an otherworldly beauty that makes them ideal to play vampires. With wild hair and ivory-colored skin, their bodies find tangles of angles in the frame that are breathtakingly beautiful. Shirtless in low-slung jeans and scraggly dark hair, Hiddleston broods with a raw sensuality and vulnerability that makes it easy to see why he was eyed for The Crow reboot. Swinton’s languid physicality and contagious lust for life feel natural and effortless. Together, their every move is mesmerizing, and the bond that Swinton and Hiddleston have created onscreen is delectably rich, full of history, texture, and sex.
Wasikowska explodes into this dynamic as the pesky sister, pushing Adam out of his comfort zone. It’s a joy to see Wasikowska portray a playful girl for once. She is perhaps at her most fun as she flirts with Adam’s human friend Ian (Anton Yelchin). In this role, Yelchin is loose-limbed and energetic, naked in his desire to be liked by Adam, Eve, and Ava. Jeffrey Wright appears briefly as Adam’s reluctant blood supplier, offering a sharp comedic turn. And Hurt is characteristically fantastic as the cheeky Marlowe, who has a wicked sense of humor and a soft spot for the “suicidal romantic scoundrel” that is Adam.
To be frank, these characters were so sumptuously created I could have watched them lounge glamorously and talk about rock, Youtube, and Byron for hours. Fittingly, the film’s other elements are just as velvety and seductive. From the set design—which clutters Adam and Eve’s homes with countless mementos just as their psyches are cluttered with centuries of experience and memories—to the costume design that paints each vampire as a person out of time and of all times, the art design is awe-inspiring. Something old and something new are nested in each frame and on each form, visually telling us the background of these ancient lovers with each layer and accent.
The cinematography, shot digitally with simple lamps for lighting, is moody and romantic, framing Eve and Adam again and again as if they are subjects of paintings or sculptures. The film’s editing gives more cause to swoon, dissolving one composition over another, creating new colors and textures while implying how times and influences blur together for these undead heroes. Lastly, there’s the music, which had several people at the post-screening Q&A demanding to know when a soundtrack would be released. There are scratchy old rock songs, punk tracks, classical tunes, Moroccan melodies, and instrumentals so strange and elegant they seem the stuff of dreams.
Every nook and cranny of Only Lovers Left Alive is stuffed with detail, hinting at stories that exist beyond the story’s simple plot and concise-frame. It’s world-building is so plush I couldn’t help but crave more and more. Its performances are vibrant and poignant, offering out tender and wonderfully funny moments in turn. The art design is beguiling and blends with the cinematography and editing to create a living, breathing visual feast. Then tied together with an eclectic and haunting soundtrack, Only Lovers Left Alive is a cinematic wonder, full of emotion, humor, joy and an intoxicating lust for life.
Only Lovers Left Alive is screening at the NYFF. A theatrical release is currently slated for April of 2014. For our complete New York Film Festival coverage, click here.